In my days of yore, long before there were hairdressers or stylists, and eons before either of them had become ‘unisex’, we had a Gentleman’s Barbers on the estate where I grew up: Mr Friskney, by name. Mr Friskney’s salon had two chairs, but only the eponymous owner ever worked at them. He had two styles: the short-back-and-sides and the crew-cut. Both styles pretty much involved shaving all but the very top of the head, although the crew-cut involved cropping the hair on the top of the head very short as well. Most of the men on the estate sported the former cut; the children, the latter.
Father and son always went together – it was an important bonding ritual – and dad always went to the barber’s chair first, whilst son sat and was quiet. He was very keen on ‘Seen, but not heard,’ was Mr Friskney. When dad’s cut was finished and the Macassar applied, a plank of wood was laid across the arms of the chair and son was helped aboard. This was a time of acute anxiety for the schoolboy. Mr Friskney had the reputation of being able to spot a ‘nit’ at forty paces and, it was said, if such an item was spied, he would abandon his work mid-crop and usher your demi-scalped head out of the shop and into the cold cruel world outside, with no alternative available to finish his work: the horror of the kitchen scissors and mum’s pudding bowl awaited.
Meanwhile, providing no sign of parasitical infestation was detected, conversation continued between father and barber, and son sat quietly having his head butchered whilst reading the ‘menu’ over the mirror in front of him. One word always stood out: ‘Singe’. I never knew what a singe was, nor what it did, but it was obvious that people had already had it done because the whole place constantly smelled of burnt hair and hair oil.
I have what we called a ‘cawflick’ (I think it is a corruption of ‘calf’s lick) – a lock of hair that stands up, as if licked by a calf – which becomes very much more apparent when my hair is short. I hated it, and I hated Mr Friskney for accentuating it. When Mr Friskney had finished his machinations, he always turned to my father for approval. He never addressed the children: I think that he was aware that the response, had they been asked, would probably have been along the lines of, ‘What the hell have you done to me?’
It was at this point that monies were paid and Friskney discretely enquired whether the fee-paying adult required ‘Something for the weekend?’ If the answer was affirmative, the whatever-it-was, was handed over in a brown paper bag and tucked inside the jacket pocket. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was never to be spoken of.
For those who wished to make a ‘Something for the weekend’ purchase (only we Brits could view that – along with a glass of cream sherry and tinned fruit salad – as something that could be indulged in only at the weekend) without having to go through the entire rigmarole of an unnecessary haircut, he had a small counter to the side of the salon where, at the ring of a bell, Mr Friskney could be summoned away from the chair incumbent, in order to supply a full range of shampoos, combs, scissors and, as far as I could see, brown paper bags. Occasionally an ill-informed newcomer might wander in and ask, hush-voiced, for ‘Dr White’s’ (another mystery product in the ten year old’s world of conundrums) only to be brusquely informed that she needed to be at Herriott’s next door, with the wool and the knitting patterns. Friskney’s was a male only environ.
After Mr Friskney died, presumably without tonsorial heir, his barber’s shop closed and with it, a little piece of the past. I have no desire for that past to return – not even nostalgia can mask the inequity of those times – but I cannot help scouring the barber’s ‘menu’ each time I sit to have my hair cut, hoping that someday I might, once again, see the word ‘Singe’, so that I can ask the hairdresser what on earth it entails – even though my nose tells me that alongside macassar and unmarked brown paper bags, it probably no longer exists…